Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) wants to bring about a world where unmanned drones zip around urban areas delivering packages.
That's a troubling idea for some, and it has come up against heavy resistance from the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency has not outlawed ever allowing the online retailer to fill the skies with package-carrying mini-delivery planes, but it has put a lot of barriers in place that stand in the way of that happening.
What is Google doing?
Like Amazon, Google also has a plan to use unmanned flying devices for package delivery. Dubbed Project Wing, the initiative is housed in Google X, Alphabet's experimental "moonshots" division. So, when tech news site Engadget first noticed that Google had filed documents with the FAA, it was logical to assume the search giant was looking for permission to move that project forward.
That turned out not to be the case, with Re/Code reporting on what the filing was actually about:
Sources familiar with the company said they come from Project Titan, the product of Google's acquisition of the aerospace company last year. So the FAA, which is currently late on its deadline for national drone regulation, would be approving flying things that Google has said it will use for providing Internet access and data harvesting related to problems like deforestation.
With this type of drone, Google is not competing with Amazon or any delivery efforts. It's closest competitor would be Facebook, which has considered, tested, and used a number of different models to bring Internet to under-served populations.
This might be OK
This type of drone use, while still requiring FAA approval, has a much better shot at ultimately being OKed by the federal agency. Amazon's model calls for multiple -- perhaps dozens, or even hundreds -- of unmanned vehicles buzzing around highly populated areas and pulling up to doors or windows in order to drop off items.
That creates air traffic control problems and concerns that the drones might inadvertently hit someone. At best, it's a logic problem that can be solved by technology, and at worst, it's cities filled with flying machines that are a menace to citizens.
What Google is proposing likely uses fewer drones flying farther away from where people are. The nature of what it will be doing -- Internet access and data harvesting -- also suggests the company will operate in less-populated areas.
It seems reasonable that while there are still air-traffic issues to be solved with the Google drones, the FAA might be more willing to approve an idea of this type because it actually solves a public problem. Bringing Internet to everyone is something the U.S. government actually supports (through the efforts of the Federal Communications Commission), and Google would be helping to do that.
It's a case of one company serving the public good (even if it too benefits from it), while the other is really only serving itself and customers.
Drones are coming
Google has given the FAA an easy way to say yes to drones in a limited way and study their impact. This is a case where the law should not stop progress, but it should stop me from having an unmanned flying machine crash into me when I go get the mail.
This is a sensible start for commercial drone use, and the FAA should be vigilant, but permissive. It's not the day for widespread drone package delivery just yet, but Google's efforts could make it so that eventually, it is.